A Cook's Journey, a Love Story and Dishpan Hands
words Joanne Friedrick
photography Benjamin Clay
Sandy Garson has gone by many titles in the culinary world. She has been a caterer and a baker with businesses in Maine. She is an author, of the cookbook Veggiyana: The Dharma of Cooking. And the children at a school in Kathmandu call her machen, or “cook.” But the moniker that Garson speaks of with the widest smile is hayong trukhen lakpa, which translates, roughly, from the Tibetan dialect to “dishpan hands.”
Garson earned her nickname in 1998, on a Buddhist retreat in Baltimore, Maryland. In her typical pitch-in style, she did some shopping and cooking for the group. When it came time for a special part of the program Garson wanted to attend, the woman running the retreat told her instead to stay in the kitchen. She tells it: “I finally said in exasperation, ‘What am I, just dishpan hands?’” The name stuck.
Maine has many chefs enamored of their New England roots, but Garson, who lives in Portland, has spent more than 20 years exploring the food of a culture found halfway around the world, amid the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.
A Chef and the Eightfold Path
Garson’s fascination with Himalayan cuisine began with a thesis she wrote for a 1990 seminar at Radcliffe, on the connection between Buddhism and food. When Tibetan monks visited a large dharma center near Boston that year, she traveled from Maine to cook for them. “They were leaving their country and coming here. How could I give back?” she asks. “I decided I could give them the familiarity of their own food.” Soon, Garson was the “go-to cook” for visiting gurus in Boston, Baltimore and other cities.
There are about 150,000 Nepalese in the United States, many of them clustered around high-tech centers like Boston and San Francisco, where they work. With those communities come the markets and restaurants that serve them. After Garson left Maine in the mid-’90s to live for a while in San Francisco, she approached the owners of a Tibetan restaurant there and asked them to teach her to cook.
Garson made her visit to Nepal in 1987, and returned in 1993. In 2000 she made her first trip to Nepal as a dharma student rather than as a tourist. “Everyone goes to Nepal to trek, but I go to schlep,” she kids, conceding she’s more interested in finding food and recipes than in conquering the famous Himalayan heights.
During that first trip, Garson visited the Shree Mangal Dvip school in Kathmandu, founded by the guru she had studied with in Portland. There she found 300 students crowded into a space meant for half as many. “All these beautiful children with rashes, runny noses, scabs and skinniness,” she says. After a morning of teaching, Garson stood up and nervously asked the 100 people there to donate $1 that they would otherwise spend on beer or chai at lunch. Within 10 minutes, she had collected $120. “I got in a truck with three monks, and we went shopping. I was haggling with vendors to get dal [dried lentils], beans and iodized salt [the salt is important because there was a goiter problem because of lack of iodine at the time] and I bought trekker’s porridge for breakfast,” she remembers.
The kitchen at Shree Mangal Dvip had a dirt floor. A pile of bricks on the floor served as the stove. The bricks were stacked so there was a hole on one side and another on the top. The Tibetan men would push a tree trunk into the side hole, while flames burst out of the top one. To regulate the heat, the men pulled the trunk away from the hole.
Despite the conditions, Garson says, she cooked three meals that day for the kids, who called her machen. Garson raises money to buy food and cooking school ingredients—an ongoing effort—as well as to teach the children to cook, an effort that has improved the health and immunity of the children.
Himalayan food is “where Indian and Chinese get married,” says Garson. Take, for example, Tibetan momos. Momos are filled with chicken, water buffalo or potato and cheese, then steamed or sometimes pan-fried and served with a roasted tomato or chili and yogurt sauce—which is where the Indian comes in. (The Bhutanese have their own take on momos, using buckwheat for the dumplings and filling them with mustard greens.)
A Himalayan-style chicken curry isn’t as spicy as an Indian one. It’s made with a blend of garlic, ginger and turmeric combined with roasted chicken, onions and tomatoes. “If [the Nepalese] could afford it, they would eat chicken curry every day,” says Garson, but meat is very expensive in the region. Most Himalayan dishes are vegetarian, although lamb, pork, goat or water buffalo may be used in small amounts. Often a meal consists of dal bhat—lentils and rice—plus two vegetables, such as potatoes, okra or fava beans, and a salad or chutney.
The food is simple, inexpensive, seasonal and, as the locals say, “tasty-tasty.” “What more could you want?” Garson asks.
Beyond that, she’s drawn to the spirit of the Himalayan table. The region’s harsh climate makes raising food difficult; people respect where it comes from and what it means to them. “All of these people, because they live where they do, realize that food is sacred,” she explains. Many erect shrines in their kitchens. Connected to this ethos is a strong focus on hospitality—your teacup is never empty, Garson notes.
Maine to Nepal to Maine (and back)
Garson’s last trip to Nepal was in 2014. And while she doesn’t have plans to go back anytime soon, she’s still working hard to raise the visibility of the region’s cuisine and the people behind it. Last year she spoke at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York, the only “yellow hair” on a panel about how certain immigrant groups’ restaurants are enlivening the economy and culture of greater New York. She’s also working on a cookbook that explores Himalayan culture and history and that features the people she has met along the way.
Still, Garson visits restaurant kitchens—oftentimes Indian eateries that have Nepalese chefs—looking to hone her skills and encourage the chefs to share their native dishes with Mainers eager to explore new cuisines.
“These are people who have something to offer you,” Garson says. “And somehow, they became my people.”